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What the Stages of Reading Taught Me About the Heart of Worship

In my work as a school psychologist, I spent many years assessing reading skills in children, as well as providing recommendations to parents and teachers to assist in improving those skills. At the risk of going into far more detail than you would be interested in here, let me try to briefly explain how reading skills develop. Reading is divided into three components. Basic reading comes first, which is the ability to decode (“sound out”) unfamiliar words and to recognize sight words (or those words that don’t follow the rules and can’t be “sounded out”).

Once students have learned the letters of the alphabet and the sounds each makes, they put those things together to begin to read. In early stages, they are able to “call” words or read them from a list or in text. For many students, this skill often begins as (and for some unfortunately remains) a “rote” skill. There is a great deal of memorization and it is simply a mechanical skill. This type of learning is handy when memorizing multiplication tables, state capitals or maybe even spelling words; however, if a student remains at this stage of reading, they will struggle with learning as they progress through school. We often say in grades K through 2 students learn to read, but in grades 3 and beyond, they read to learn.

As they continue to progress through the stages of reading, they will eventually develop comprehension or understanding of meaning when words are put together to form sentences, paragraphs and passages of text. From the basic reading phase, it is the hope that students develop reading fluency (the ability to read with sufficient rate and accuracy) that will then lead to successful comprehension.

So why the lesson in reading today?

During my daily Bible reading, I came across a passage that I had read many times before but had not seen in the New Living Translation.

In Isaiah 29:13 NLT we read:

“And so the Lord says,

“These people say they are mine.

They honor me with their lips,

but their hearts are far from me.

And their worship of me

is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.”

As I focused on the word “rote” I immediately thought of so many of the young students who believed they were strong readers only to realize they were stuck in the beginning phase of reading and how many times I would have to deliver the bad news to parents that their reading was just “rote”. Without moving to the comprehension phase, their reading would always simply be calling words that had little to no meaning to them. To some they would appear to be good readers, yet when asked a question about what they had read or the main idea of a passage, they would likely struggle with uncertainty. That conversation was always such a difficult one.

Yet, here in my “quiet time” I was having a similar conversation in my own spirit. As I thought about my heart as it relates to worship, I was asking the same difficult question…Is what I often call worship in my life just rules learned by rote? Am I going through the motions, saying the right things with my lips and maybe even appearing to be worshipful to those around me, yet I have not moved past the man-made rules to truly comprehend the meaning of worship? Have I simply memorized a few songs or prayers that fail to fully penetrate my heart?

Scripture is filled with instances in which the Lord was disgusted with the “religion” of man. He is not impressed by our grand displays or beautiful prayers when our hearts are full of sin or our motives are impure.

“People judge by outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”

1 Samuel 16:7

Just as I always hoped for my friends who were struggling readers to be able to move through the stages of reading successfully, it is my prayer that I will not remain stuck in a cycle of “rote” worship. That I will begin to immediately recognize those times when my heart is out of line with the will of God and I will pray Psalm 51:10:

“Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.”

What about you? Is there anything in your heart standing in your way of worship today? The good news is this…even when we are unfaithful, He remains faithful and we can always be forgiven if we simply ask.

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9


Stephani Cook is a life coach, speaker, writer, podcast host and the creator of On Purpose Coaching. Through On Purpose Coaching she helps others to improve relationships and to discover intentional abundant living. She does that through group and/or individual coaching, live event speaking or Enneagram workshops in private and corporate settings.

To connect with Stephani about the possibility of coaching or speaking to your group or organization, visit her website


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